I attended a conference over the weekend in which Cynthia Enloe gave an excellent account of the purpose and uses of concepts in critical theory. Enloe contends that when people identify patterns within seemingly random and singular behaviours and practices, the invention of concepts can help us name and understand the politics underlying such phenomena. Concepts, in this respect, help us to render visible the norms and practices that link seemingly disparate incidents and events together. In turn, making these norms and practices visible presents the opportunity to challenge them. In other words, we are no longer challenging singular issues, but the broader politics that makes these singular events possible and often acceptable.
Okay, how many academics have attended an International Relations (IR) conference to be confronted by the following scene? In a panel’s question and answer session an academic (usually white and male) uses the pretence of asking a question to demonstrate their vast intellect by chiding, patronising and belittling one or more of the presenters and their work. Yes? You’ve witnessed this? Well I have too, and so has every single one of my peers and colleagues I have broached the topic with. So we have this widespread phenomenon that most IR scholars are aware of, but we haven’t really given it a name or made any concentrated effort to make it visible and challenge it.
Today I would like to suggest that we name this phenomenon Acadicking. I say Acadicking because whenever a scholar engages in such behaviour I feel as if they have dropped their trousers, taken out their penis, waved it around and show everyone just how big and strong it is and, of course, to emasculate the smaller less confident penises on the panel and in the room at large. Now obviously we are not talking about physical penises, but intellectual phalluses. So naturally female academics can partake in Acadicking (it is, however, far rarer). In turn, Acadicks generally see their role as scholars in masculine terms: academia is about competition, it’s always a battle of ideas (not an exchange) that necessitates demolishing the opponent and their ideas, and anyone who feels uncomfortable with this simply isn’t cut out for IR’s cutthroat world. As one of my friends was not so subtly advised during their PhD, ‘man-up’ or you won’t last as an IR scholar.
Confession time, for a brief time in my younger and more vulnerable years I skirted far too close to Acadicking. There are good reasons for this. Acadicks are generally seen as successful scholars of a certain standing and notoriety. They often rise to the upper echelons of their institutions, publish widely and are flush with accolades. IR as a discipline, in other words, rewards Acadickish behaviour and attitudes. So for young scholars looking to be noticed and make a name for themselves, Acadicking appears to be a promising pathway. In this sense, although Acadicks represent a minority of the IR community, their visibility in public spaces like conferences creates the perception that Acadicking is normal and an excellent tool for forging a successful career in IR.
This leads us toward the second aspect of Enloe’s schema, how do we challenge Acadicking? One of the primary difficulties in challenging Acadicking is that protagonists believe that they are the ones doing academic debate properly. Because what we are discussing revolves around ideals of what constitutes legitimate debate, any challenge to Acadicking can lead to claims of trying to police IR and narrow its scope. As such, challenging Acadicking requires posing a direct question to Acadicks. Namely, what do you think this form of debate adds to our discipline? In my eyes critical debate necessitates interest. I engage with your work because it interests me. I may not agree with what you are saying, but I am interested in hearing how you respond to the issues I raise. You, in turn, are hopefully interested in the implications of my criticisms and our exchange of knowledge is productive for both of us; we both come out of the exchange enriched. I do not see this in Acadicking. Acadicks are interested in the initial argument only in so far as it gives them a springboard to speak. They are far more interested in the demonstration of their own superior intellect, and in validating their own pre-given position. This, of course, is highly problematic for critical theory because it acts as a reification of the idea that academic work is concerned with delivering the right answers. In other words, Acadicking is intimately related to the ideals of traditional problem solving theory in IR; I belittle you to illustrate your wrongness and, thereby, reify my rightness.
While my preferred mode of challenge would be to hand paddles to every participant and audience member with the words ‘Stop Acadicking’ embossed upon them, this is probably a pie in the sky fantasy. Instead, I would suggest the more modest method of responding to Acadicking with the question of, ‘why do you think this is a productive way to exchange in debate?’ ‘What benefits do you see emerging from this combative approach?’ Obviously it is difficult to challenge more subtle forms of Acadicking, for instance, the classic way in which certain academics speak to their peers and contemporaries as if they were offering advice to a naïve undergraduate student who didn’t quite understand how to do the whole IR thing. But this questioning begins to openly confront Acadicks with their own behaviour. To question the purpose and value of this form of scholarship, and ultimately to tease out the overarching implications of this for how such behaviour and practices has and continues to shape IR as a discipline.